I spent the weekend with friends in Germany and visited a lovely old church on Sunday morning. It was nice to hear the bells ringing all across the city; it’s something I miss in the UK.
The Mass itself – well, the less said the better really. It was a kiddies’ Mass, so they had the German equivalent of ‘If I were a butterfly’ (I actually have no idea what they were singing about but it sounded pretty awful) and the Priest came to the edge of the Sanctuary and did the actions along with the children. Excruciating. I was lucky with the reading (although they only had one plus the Gospel which surprised me) in that it was that incredibly famous passage from 1 John about love – which, incidentally, I remember from my own wedding – so I understood most of it, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of the Gospel as my German is incredibly rusty! And I was totally lost in the homily as well, so whether the Priest was the world’s most amazing preacher or a terrible bore I’ll never know. To be honest, it’s probably for the best…
But when it came to the Eucharistic Prayer I was on familiar ground. I don’t need to remember all my German to follow what is going on in this part of the Mass. The moment of the Consecration doesn’t change from Church to Church. And excruciating or not, the rest of the Mass paled into comparision when set against the mind-blowing fact that here, in the midst of all the action songs, and the Priest joining in in that terribly embarrassing way that adults have when they’re catering to the kiddies, and the hideous cheap-looking white-and-orange (orange?) vestments, and the bland liturgical music – in the midst of all of that, Christ Himself was still really and actually present on the altar. The Priest is offering the sacrifice of the Mass in the same way as every other Priest the world over, and the same thing happens, the same incredible, wonderful miracle, and nothing can change that.
This is why I became a Catholic. It’s very easy to find beautiful Anglican services – you just have to head to pretty much any Forward in Faith parish to find services which look and feel more Catholic than a lot of Catholic Masses. Including, in some places, the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (albeit often in the old translation), which can be confusing for those who aren’t familiar with Anglo-Catholicism. In fact, many Anglo-Catholics (including me when I was one) joke that they are ‘more Catholic than the Catholics’, and in terms of liturgical style that’s often true. But look and feel is not the only thing that matters. In fact, although a beautiful liturgy is important, it’s significantly less important than the substance of what is happening in the Mass itself.
In the Anglican Church, style becomes very important. Anglo-Catholic vs Low-Church is a huge deal. People don’t worship in each other’s churches, because they don’t like the style of the service – low church Anglicans detest the ‘bells and smells’, high-church Anglicans can’t get enough of them. I have to say that even in the Catholic Church I’m drawn to parishes with wonderful music and respectful liturgy. But in the Church of England, style is a pointer to other major issues. In the same ecclesiastical structure you have priests who believe in the Real Presence and priests who believe that it’s just a memorial. You have people who think you can have women priests and people who think that those same women priests – ordained in a church they are part of – aren’t priests at all. I became a Catholic mainly because I knew that in the Catholic Church, whether or not I like the style, the substance is undoubtedly there. Regardless of the awfulness of the music or the lacklustre attitude of the Priest or the bareness of the Sanctuary, what is happening in the Mass is the same everywhere and at every time. There are occasions when I spend the entirety of the Mass wincing and wishing myself elsewhere (and even back in some of those beautiful Anglican churches I bid a regretful goodbye to), but in the end Christ is there, and that’s the most important thing of all.
Yes, it’s important to care about making the Liturgy beautiful, because by doing that you remind everyone of its importance, and you help to create an atmosphere of adoration so that people can begin to understand the supreme mystery of the Eucharist. But at the same time, let’s not forget – in the Catholic Church style doesn’t actually alter the substance, and that’s something for which we should profoundly thankful.
I’m not sure I’ll be going back to that Church again though. Maybe I should try Cologne Cathedral instead next time…